Red Joan

In Cinemas Now

What price would you pay for peace?

Based on a true story, Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench is a British physicist who led a double life as the longest-serving British spy for the KGB. Inspired by the life of Melita Norwood, Dench plays Joan Stanley, who looks back on a lifetime of espionage intrigue that spanned half a century - from the Second World War to the year 2000.

Trailers

Directed by

Written by

Drama, True Story & Biography

110mins

Rating: M Sex scenes

UK

With an intriguing looking trailer, expectations for Red Joan—directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Dame Judi Dench (playing the titular heroine in her later years)—were elevated. I really wanted to be transported by the provocative-sounding tale this WW2 spy thriller/drama, based on a true story, promised.

When the MI5 come knocking, Joan, a woman living out her dotage in a small English village is at peace in her garden or painting—so far, so innocent. When she is suddenly arrested and interrogated about her University years at Cambridge in the 1930’s and later employment on a Top Secret government project, we discover this sweet Granny might just have some big secrets. Or is it just the one secret—and bunch of increasingly boring filler...Judi Dench, please save us!

Although a good-looking film, a dogged penchant for extreme closeups exploring young Joan’s (Sophie Cookson) face looking fretful, guilty, kissy, or lovesick were in lieu, it would seem, of developing convincing supportive subplots and building the sort of tension potential world destruction demands. The flashbacks of her interactions with the handsome and fervent Russian radical commie Leo (Tom Hughes), introduced to bookish Joan by her new glamorous-yet-predictable party pal Sonya (Tereza Srbova), and repeated attempts to fully indoctrinate Joan and eventually wheedle nuclear secrets out of her, should make for some thrilling hooks. Unfortunately, they become repetitive and Joan despite having fallen for Leo keeps refusing to wholeheartedly “come to the party”.

My disappointment with Red Joan is mainly that there wasn’t a more multi-dimensional story about this woman, more danger and intrigue woven into her duality, more tension as we question her motives and techniques. Instead we are never challenged by flaws or grit in her character and it almost feels she gave up certain intel because she was sick of being harassed. Even scant research on Melita Norwood (British civil servant upon whom this story is based) suggests that she was a staunch commie and the KGB’s most valued British intelligence source, having a covert espionage career until her surprise arrest for treason when she was in her eighties... That’s the film I wanted to see.

Hollywood Reporter

press

A taut old-school thriller with a modern heroine.

Screen International

press

Solidly competent and, for the most part, well acted...

The Guardian

press

Most of the fun in Red Joan comes from such overthrown expectations, so it's a shame that the film itself fails to overwhelm - mostly proceeding along dully familiar lines and anything but radical.

The Times (UK)

press

Dench lends emotional heft and nuance to her handful of scenes, but Red Joan is otherwise let down by leaden dialogue and one-note characters.

Variety (USA)

press

A would-be sweeping epic that instead turns out tweedy, dreary, and unconvincing.

FilmInk (Australia)

press

The film as a whole does have a fascinating story to tell and with this cast (especially Dench, of course) it is brought to the screen with considerable aplomb.

TimeOut (London)

press

It's all about as tense as a gentle punt down the Cam.

Stuff.co.nz (Graeme Tuckett)

press

What betrays the film is a script that badly needed to be broken down and reassembled into a far leaner and nimbler form than the one presented here.

A movie split between dull and adequate timelines

Red Joan is a British period spy drama, based on the real life of Melita Norwood, a KGB spy who was not discovered until she was in her 80's. The film is directed by Trevor Nunn and stars Dame Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson as Joan Stanley (a substitute name for Melita Norwood).

The film is non-linear starting at the point that Joan (Dame Judi Dench) is arrested by MI5 detectives, and frequently flashing back to memories of her younger self (played by Sophie Cookson) as she attempts to explain her involvement with the KGB. It is an odd choice thematically, as it goes against the expectations of the audience as to how this film would go. When one imagines World War II, the consequential Cold War, and spies trying to gain intelligence in foreign countries, treason and bombs, you are almost always going to expect an action-packed thriller; instead, we have a sedated, romantic drama.

The theme of sexism is frequently brought to the attention of the audience, with some occasional tactless dialogue, but more often with sadly humourous behaviours that are a reminder of how little the world has really changed since then. Sophie Cookson is incredibly charismatic on screen and captures your attention with every movement. With the camera often focused up close on her face, much of the film relies on her facial performance. Yet, the strength of her character and justifications feel undermined by the romantic urges that lead her astray on several occasions.

The film only really works if the audience believes that the world is in danger, but that idea is never truly felt. Red Joan seems adamant that anyone with communist sympathies must be portrayed in a negative light, with no basis for their justifications. But without a real threat, without high stakes, the film is weak and uninteresting.

There is a nice contrast between Dame Judi Dench's frail, ailing granny, and Sophie Cookson's confident and proud youthfulness. It all keeps calling the direction of the film into question; with some rather distracting transitions between timelines, the modern-day arc is largely surplus and unnecessary. A linear timeline would have built up tension to a higher degree and brought more engagement in the characters.

Red Joan is incredibly slow, and doesn't build really towards anything. There is no real sense of how high the stakes are, and Joan's justifications lack any conviction. The real focus of the film is not on the protagonist's treason, or her wanting to save the world. This is a film about a woman searching for love, who ends up torn between two men on different sides of a war. If you want a spy thriller, you will be very disappointed. If you want a slow-burning love triangle in a scientific world war setting, then this will be worth a watch.